Monthly Archives: October 2017

Hope and Strategy for a Thriving Democracy

Hope and Strategy for a Thriving Democracy

By David Hoffman, Jennifer Domagal-Goldman, Stephanie King, and Verdis Robinson

Let America be the dream that dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above. …

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.

–from Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again” (written in 1935)

It has been a challenging couple of years for people in higher education working to fulfill the promise of American democracy.

CLDE_06102017_27.JPG Participants at the 2017 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting grapple with

Participants in the 2017 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting grapple with higher education’s role in contributing to a thriving democracy. [Image credit: Greg Dohler]

Most of us have chosen our careers and commitments in part because of our profound optimism about the American experiment in self-governance. Our work with students in communities on campus and beyond reflects our belief that We, the People, appropriately oriented to our collective power, can work together across differences in background, experience, and perspective to promote the general welfare wisely and justly.Yet today our democracy is in crisis. New hostilities and old prejudices seem to be consuming the body politic. Confidence in our collective institutions and the nation’s overall direction has fallen precipitously. Higher education is under pressure to do more with less, and to focus student learning on workforce development and career preparation, potentially at the expense of civic learning and democratic engagement.

In the face of these pressures, it is tempting to yearn for simpler times, and to direct our work toward restoring what we sense has been lost. For decades, much civic learning and democratic engagement work in higher education, even the most innovative, has embedded a subtle retrospectivity: a longing for aspects of a partly mythic collective past. Higher education’s service-learning and nonpartisan political engagement initiatives have harkened back to a time when people spent more of their lives engaged in common activities rather than consuming content, and seemingly each other, through electronic screens. They have grasped for an elusive yesteryear of communal investments in projects and people, for the public good. With considerable success, educators supporting civic learning and democratic engagement have endeavored to regenerate the sense of empathy, shared responsibility, initiative, and courage celebrated in some Norman Rockwell paintings and in tales from the freedom movements of bygone days.

The four of us also feel that tug of nostalgia. Furthermore, we know that stories of democracy and civic agency from our collective past are vital cultural resources for anyone hoping to foster civic learning and democratic engagement today. Yet like one of the narrators of Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again, we recognize that even in better times, the promise of American democracy has never been completely fulfilled. Too many Americans have been kept at the margins. Even people not excluded from formal civic power by discriminatory laws and practices have been reduced to consumers and spectators of democracy by cultural conventions that have defined citizens simply as voters and volunteers, but only rarely as potential community-builders, civic professionals, innovators, and problem-solvers.

We believe higher education and its partners in communities across America need a vision of civic learning and democratic engagement for our time: oriented to the thriving democracy we have not yet achieved, but can build together. The influential 2012 report A Crucible Moment expressed such a vision in its call for weaving civic learning and democratic engagement into all of higher education’s work involving students. That call conceptualizes democratic engagement as a central practice in everyday life and relationships, not a particular set of activities undertaken on special occasions. It evokes John Dewey’s (1937) framing of democracy as a way of life that must be “enacted anew in every generation, in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions.” In a similar vein, David Hoffman’s 2015 blog post Describing Transformative Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Practices proposed that in order to transcend the paradigm of marginal, episodic, celebratory, and scripted civic engagement programs, higher education’s civic work must become more integral, relational, organic, and generative.

At the 2016 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, participants built on these insights as they imagined how people experiencing a thriving democracy in the year 2046 might look back at the intervening 30 years of progress. More recently, at the 2017 CLDE Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, participants worked together to begin developing shared answers to four central questions facing higher education’s civic learning and democratic engagement movement:

  1. The Vision Question: What are the key features of the thriving democracy we aspire to enact and support through our work?
  2. The Learning Outcomes Question: What knowledge, skills, and dispositions do people need in order to help create and contribute to a thriving democracy?
  3. The Pedagogy Question: How can we best foster the acquisition and development of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for a thriving democracy?
  4. The Strategy Question: How can we build the institutional culture, infrastructure, and relationships needed to support learning that enables a thriving democracy?


Answering the four central questions facing higher education’s civic learning and democratic engagement movement. [Image credit: Greg Dohler]

Those energetic conversations, and the ideas they generated, are a very promising early step in an inclusive process of reimagining our collective work to meet democracy’s needs. In the coming months, we will share thinking emerging from within our networks and invite broad participation in refining tentative answers to the four key questions. At the 2018 CLDE meeting in Anaheim, California from June 6-9, participants will continue to shape and begin to apply our shared answers.Langston Hughes concluded “Let America Be America Again” with this injunction:

We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!

We believe higher education is well-positioned to contribute to the fulfillment of this charge by extending and deepening our support for students as co-creators of a thriving democracy.

What are your thoughts and hopes for this emerging work? What issues should our networks be sure to consider as this planning process unfolds? Please share your comments.


Dewey, J. (1937). Education and social change.” Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors 23, 6, 472–4.

Hoffman, D. (2015, July 1). “Describing transformative civic learning and democratic engagement practices.” American Democracy Project (blog).

Hughes, L. (1994). “Let America be America again.” In A. Rampersad (Ed.), The collected poems of Langston Hughes (pp. 189-191). New York: Vintage. (Original work published in 1936).

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012). A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.


David Hoffman is Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency at the University of Maryland (MD) and an architect of UMBC’s BreakingGround initiative. His work is directed at fostering civic agency and democratic engagement through courses, co-curricular experiences and cultural practices on campus. His research explores students’ development as civic agents, highlighting the crucial role of experiences, environments, and relationships students perceive as “real” rather than synthetic or scripted. David is a member of Steering Committee for the American Democracy Project and the National Advisory Board for Imagining America. He is an alum of UCLA (BA), Harvard (JD, MPP) and UMBC (PhD).

Jennifer Domagal-Goldman is the national manager of AASCU’s American Democracy Project (ADP). She earned her doctorate in higher education from the Pennsylvania State University. She received her master’s degree in higher education and student affairs administration from the University of Vermont and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester. Jennifer’s dissertation focused on how faculties learn to incorporate civic learning and engagement in their undergraduate teaching within their academic discipline. Jennifer holds an ex-officio position on the eJournal of Public Affairs’ editorial board.

Stephanie King is the Assistant Director for Knowledge Communities and Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Initiatives at NASPA where she directs the NASPA Lead Initiative.  She has worked in higher education since 2009 in the areas of student activities, orientation, residence life, and civic learning and democratic engagement. Stephanie earned her Master of Arts in Psychology at Chatham University and her B.S. in Biology from Walsh University. She has served as the Coordinator for Commuter, Evening and Weekend Programs at Walsh University, Administrative Assistant to the VP and Dean of Students for the Office of Student Affairs, the Coordinator of Student Affairs, and the Assistant Director of Residence Life and Student Affairs at Chatham University.

Verdis L. Robinson is the National Director of The Democracy Commitment after serving as a tenured Assistant Professor of History and African-American Studies at Monroe Community College (NY). Professionally, Verdis is a fellow of the Aspen Institute’s Faculty Seminar on Citizenship and the American and Global Polity, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Faculty Seminar on Rethinking Black Freedom Studies: The Jim Crow North and West.  Additionally, Verdis is the founder of the Rochester Neighborhood Oral History Project that with his service-learning students created a walking tour of the community most impacted by the 1964 Race Riots, which has engaged over 400 members of Rochester community in dialogue and learning.  He holds a B.M. in Voice Performance from Boston University, a B.S. and an M.A. in History from SUNY College at Brockport, and an M.A. in African-American Studies from SUNY University at Buffalo.

Introducing the Inaugural TDC Civic Intern Team

Introducing the Inaugural TDC Civic Intern Team

The Inaugural TDC Civic Intern Team

This fall, The Democracy Commitment has started a student internship program to regionally engage campuses & students with the national office, and to further TDC’s mission and goals.  The new Civic Intern Team (CIT) welcomes six new interns into the fold as a group of motivated and engaged students studying at or affiliated with our member institutions to help promote regional civic engagement efforts and activities providing the national platform that they deserve. Through their efforts both behind the scenes and at the forefront of TDC, the CIT will help to publicize the civic power of democracy’s colleges more than ever before.  So, without further adieu, let’s meet the inaugural TDC Civic Intern Team.  

National Office Civic Intern

Grant Fishman serves as TDC’s intern for Fall 2017 assisting at the National Office in Washington, D.C., through The Washington Center internship program.  Along with his Internship, Grant pursues a BS in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (PPE)  with a minor in Sociology at Suffolk University in downtown Boston. After growing up in Weston, Massachusetts, Grant attended a boarding school in Wilton, New Hampshire, before attending Suffolk and now lives in Concord, Massachusetts. At Suffolk, Grant represents the PPE Student Advisory Board as a Chair and assists in promoting the major within the University as well as contributing to projects and initiatives designed to further it. But while the Advisory Board plays a role in the success of the major, its primary focus is to ensure the success of PPE students and provide opportunities for young professionals. Civic engagement is essential in its mission and is a large part of what Grant has been working on at Suffolk these past few years. After graduating, Grant intends on pursuing a law degree in constitutional policy and continue on to pursue a career in public service.

National Graphic Design Intern 

Aaron Pallares, a native Houstonian and first generation American, made his way to Michigan for his love of snow. This scene of tranquility scene helped to provide an atmosphere of serenity and focus for his talents in graphic design, web design, and brand identity. Currently, as a student at Delta College, he aspires to one day become a digital marketer and brand ambassador.  Aaron Pallares has been married to his lovely wife, Jessica, for a decade. They create a wonderful team alongside their half-pint daughter, Zoe.

California-Based Regional Civic Intern

After being raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Nathan Bowman graduated high school and moved to California, where he received his Associate’s degree in liberal studies with an emphasis in behavioral sciences from College of Marin. Nathan is currently an undergraduate student at San Francisco State University pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology. While studying at College of Marin, Nathan was the President of the Student’s for Social Justice club where he developed an interest in ensuring that students become civically engaged in their community. Student’s for Social Justice allowed Nathan to attend the CLDE meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was featured as a speaker for multiple panels. At San Francisco State University, Nathan is representing a national-nonprofit called Net Impact which is a nonpartisan initiative to raise awareness about the national debt. Nathan has been inspired to help students develop an understanding of non-partisan issues within the United States. Civic engagement has become an essential role in Nathan’s academic career and he wishes to pursue a career in educating students about the importance of political issues. Further, it is his belief that the promotion of education is necessary for the developmental growth of young people, and it is his goal to assure that academia works towards enforcing diversity among students, faculty, administration, and staff.

Massachusetts-Based Regional Civic Intern

Eden Shaveet serves as a Massachusetts-based regional intern for The Democracy Commitment. Her responsibilities include managing the organization’s social media accounts and initiatives, as well as assisting in the coordination of the Student Voice Project. Along with her service to TDC, Eden serves as a Commonwealth Corps member with United Way Youth Venture as the Venture Retention and Engagement Innovator at Mount Wachusett Community College.  As a recent graduate of Mount Wachusett Community College and the Gateway to College program, Eden received her high school diploma and her Associate’s Degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences in May of 2017. She is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology at Elms College and plans to continue her graduate studies upon her graduation in the Spring of 2019. As Valedictorian of her graduating class, Eden gave a speech advocating on behalf of alternative educational programming that was shared across the country by local news and the Gateway to College National Network.  She has since become a blogger and spokesperson for the Gateway to College program. In addition, Eden currently serves as the Vice President and Curriculum Designer of the Her Strength Foundation, whose mission is to promote reproductive health education for women and girls in developing countries. Eden’s curriculum was recently utilized in the Foundation’s first trip to Tanzania during August of 2017.Eden’s passions lie within the realm of educational advocacy and public policy, and is very excited to channel her abilities into furthering the mission of The Democracy Commitment.

Michigan-Based Regional Civic Intern

Angelo Kapp is a student at Delta College in Michigan and also attends Northwood University. Angelo served as a student intern at the CLDE16 in Indianapolis, IN. He is the former Vice President of Citizens In Action, a student-led club that promotes student civic engagement around campus and local communities. Angelo is a member on the advisory committee for Somos Hispanos, a PBS show about Hispanic people: how they live, the issues they face day to day, and the positive work they do to make a difference in the community. The show highlights people, culture, and events that help promote positive images of the Hispanic community.  He is pursuing a degree in Advertising and Marketing and is a member of DECA, Society of Hispanic Leaders, and the American Advertising Federation.


New Jersey-Based Regional Civic Intern


Cindy Nicole Aldana is currently a second year student at Raritan Valley Community College located in Central New Jersey. Cindy is currently working to receive an Associate’s degree in Communications and Political Science. At RVCC, she also serves as a Senator for the Student Government Association, President of Debate Club and also a member of the Feminist Coalition. After finishing her last year at RV, she plans to transfer and has a grocery of list of schools that she desires to. One of them being Georgetown due to their great academics and integrity, as well as their beautiful location. After finishing her Bachelor’s degree, she aspires to attend Law School in the hopes and aspiration to practice Constitutional Law. To which, practicing law will give her great experience for her ultimate career goal; to become an Elected Official. All these goals and aspirations developed due to her interactions and experiences a RVCC. Communicating with students on their concerns and needs sparked her interest in desiring to serve with a purpose bigger than herself.


We look forward to working with these engaged student citizens and stay tuned as they help The Democracy Commitment advance democracy and citizenship in our community colleges.

-Verdis Robinson, TDC National Director